Part 1: What the heck is an instructional designer?

What is an instructional designer?This is the first post in a series where I answer the question: “What the heck is an instructional designer?” Stay tuned for each part as I take you behind the curtain!

If I had a dollar for every blank look I’ve gotten when I’ve told people that I’m an instructional designer, I could probably retire from my profession as an instructional designer. I’ve even had jobs where, after working together for years. close co-workers have said to me, “I still don’t know what it is that you do!”

I get the confusion. It’s not as ubiquitous as “graphic designer” or “web designer.” But it IS right  there in the name [smile!] – I design instruction. That’s what I do.

Of course there are other bits of confusion to clear up. Instructional designers generally handle adult learning. K-12 curriculum creation is typically done by a different sort of educational expert. And higher education is a completely different animal. Not that there aren’t instructional designers at the college level – but your garden variety instructional designer is usually not creating college curriculum.

Instructional designers may also be labeled “instructional developers,” but that’s actually another skill set. In my case, I actually do both, but not everyone has a foot in these dual worlds.

Think about it this way: an instructional designer is sort of like an architect, while an instructional developer is a builder.

Instructional designers tend to the content (the stuff the learner is learning), while developers tend to the learner experience, or how they interact with the content. Just as UI and UX can be confusing in the general design world, design and development can be confusing in the learning world.

So what is a typical day like for an instructional designer/developer?

We all operate differently, and it often depends on whether we are employees within a training department, or freelancers working with various clients. I am a freelancer and so my typical day is often dictated by the needs of my clients. My work is also mostly project-based and what I am doing on any given day will depend on the phase of the project.

A project usually goes something like this…

The most important first step is nailing down the goal of the training.

Whether it’s going to be online or classroom-based, or even a workbook/guide or job aid, there must be a clear goal. Otherwise it’s a waste of time for everyone involved. When a client contacts me about creating training, I will ask probing questions to determine what they want to accomplish with the training.

When I was in grad school for instructional systems development (defining that is a whole other blog post! suffice it to say it was a great program that results in well-educated instructional designers), we were taught a complex methodology for defining and analyzing training goals.

Sometimes complex analysis is warranted. If an organization is going to invest resources in designing and developing a training program and then spend more time and money putting their employees through the training program, it makes sense to analyze the ROI, the organizational impact of the training, potential benchmarks, etc.

But, in my case, things are a little more clear cut. I create training for small organizations and individuals who have something very specific they want or need to teach other people. In a few cases it’s their employees, but more often than not, it’s training they intend to sell.

Regardless, the first step is understanding for myself and – often by virtue of processing my own understanding – helping my client get clear on what their end goal is. Often people have a rosy vision of all the masterful learning that will take place and it’s necessary to redirect or clarify those expectations.

In the next part of this series, I will talk more about needs analysis and the learners themselves. Are you a training industry professional? I’d love to hear your take on the instructional design process!

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